Snow is cold. I bring this up only because I am currently sitting outside, staring at a snowy hillside, waiting for a bus. The hillside is one of the foothills of Mt. Nantai, and I can see the ribbon of Irohazaka Slope 2 twisting back and forth through patches of snow.
The day didn't start with me freezing my extremities off. It started with a mellow (and warm) train ride up to Nikko. The goal of the day: tour the Toshogu and related shrines in Nikko, then check out the Kegon Waterfall. Coincidentally, the route to the waterfall from Nikko is up Irohazaka, and the way back requires going down Irohazaka*. How convenient.
(*Yes, I list up and down seperately. For those of you not familiar with Iroha, the up and the down are each two different roads, each one way. The road to Iroha is a normal, two-way street up until the foot of the mountain, at which time they split. After that, the up and the down are seperated by a river valley, so they are not even close to each other.)
Now contrary to what everyone who thinks I'm an obsessed fangirl would think, the idea to go look at the waterfall was not mine. It was my mother's. I had originally planned to nobly suppress my fannish side and not go up. But I had said once that I had seen this waterfall, and after showing her my pictures from that trip, she wanted to see it too. My mother wanted it, so what could I do?
To get to Nikko (for those who have a JR Pass), you take a Shinkansen from Tokyo or Ueno to Utsunomiya, then transfer onto a local line to get out to Nikko. The entire trip takes about two hours, one hour on each of the two train lines. The local line is a single track that cuts through farm land and smallish cities. There is a lot of open land, and a lot of wooded farmland, which makes the ride a very pleasant one. Most of the trip is on a plain, but as the train nears Nikko, the distant mountains grow steadily closer until the train line ends in a valley, surrounded on three sides by tall peaks.
In an interesting slice of daily life, a railway crew boarded the train when we got onto the local at Utsunomiya. Obviously they were catching a ride out to their work site. It was fun seeing the group, seeing the cameraderie and the way they interacted with each other. It was a nice encounter with normal life in Japan.
Arriving in Nikko, I was a little surprised to see small patches of snow here and there when we arrived at the Toshogu. The temperature was not that cold, and I had thought it would be late enough in the year that the snow would all be gone. Between the trees, the wooden buildings, and the patches of snow, it reminded me a lot of the Sierras. On the bright side, the rain from the previous day had completely vanished, and the sky was a pleasant blue.
We took the bus up to the shrine area, since it's about a mile walk, all uphill. Getting off, I spotted an amusing Integra. US residents probably won't spot what is so strange about this car, since it looks just like every other Integra in the US. That's what makes it so unusual: the Japanese version of the Integra has a different front end. The headlights are the same as the Civic, rather than the round ones of the US version. There are people in the US who pay the money to do the front end conversion so that their Integra resembles the Japanese version. I was highly entertained to see that people in Japan do the same thing in reverse.
Crossing the street to the shrine area, I noticed that the Shinkyou (one of the tourist attractions in the area; it was a bridge used only by the Shogun) was still under reconstruction. It had been the first time I came to Nikko, a year and a half ago. I was rather surprised that it was still under reconstruction. How long does it take for one little bridge??
From there we spent an appropriate amount of time wandering around doing the tourist thing. The Toshogu is the main shrine in the area, though there are at least two temples and a couple of shrines all clustered together as well. I frequently describe the Toshogu as "the Vegas of feudal Japan." It is majestic and awe-inspiring, and skates right on the line between art and tackiness. Which side of that line it falls on tends to vary for me moment by moment. Everything is intricately carved and painted, and gold leaf is everywhere.
The shrine after that is so plain and simplistic in comparison that it's a relief -- almost like a light sherbert to clear the palette. This is important, because the third temple/shrine in the set is also very grandious. It always seems a little less over-done to me, though. The carvings and painting and gold leaf in this shrine strikes me more as a careful display of wealth, rather than a tribute to excess. It's my favorite of the set, despite the huge number of stairs that one climbs to get to it.
For some reason the gaudy Toshogu didn't strike me as quite as overblown as it did last time I was there. I got a total of 5 pilgrimage signs: one from Rinnou-ji (the first temple we visited, which was very temple-like), one from the Toshogu (the completely overblown shrine; this surprised me), one from Yakushi-do (a temple tucked neatly to one side of the Toshogu), one from the Futaara Jinja (the very plain shrine -- this really surprised me), and one from Taiyuuin (my favourite of the shrines -- given the one from the Toshogu, getting one here did not surprise me at all).
One entertaining incident happened at Taiyuuin. I joke that the deity venerated at this shrine hates visitors, because of the large number of stairs there -- you have to climb about four flights of stairs to get to the shrine proper. We panted up a set of stairs at the same time as a Japanese lady was heading up. She seemed a friendly type, so when we paused for breath at a landing, I commented, "tsukareta!" (roughly, "that's tiring.") She smiled and replied that it was. Watching Crystal bound energetically up the stairs, the lady said, "Ah, youth!" We all shared a laugh (even my mother, who caught the gist of the conversation, even though it was in Japanese), and continued up the stairs. As we were leaving, she struck up a conversation. It was rather fun, and I was sorry that we had to run off.
This lady also gave me one of the few compliments I've ever gotten on my Japanese ability that I have valued. It's fairly common for a Japanese person to say "Nihongo ga jouzu desu ne" ("You speak Japanese very well") to just about any foreigner speaking *any* Japanese. (My mother -- who speaks exactly three words of Japanese, all of them learned on this trip, got this compliment given to her in English several times. She was very startled by it.) I'm aware of the custom, and brush it off appropriately. This lady did give me the standard compliment. But as we were about to take off, she also added, "You really don't need to worry about your speaking ability. Your pronounciation is fine." Ah! *tucks away the warm, fuzzy compliment* Now that was sincere.
I've joked in the past that the Tokugawa hate my cameras, since last time I was at Nikko, I ended up dropping and breaking the lens cap for both of my cameras. (I usually carry a digital and a regular 35mm camera when I'm touring in Japan.) This time I got through almost the entire visit to the shrine with no complications. I was starting to feel relaxed, until the Curse of the Toshogu struck! While waiting for my goshuuin, I was trying to put the digital camera away, and managed to catch the lens cap just right to send it flying to the ground. When I picked it up, I realized that it had come apart when it hit the ground. Darn. The evil Toshogu smote my lens cap yet again. Fortunately, Jan was able to pop it back together again. Still... Now I know to take extra precaustions with my lens caps next time I end up at the Toshogu.
We ran off to catch the bus up to Lake Chuzenji and the waterfall. We were lucky, and a bus came along soon after we reached the stop.
This was my second time riding up Iroha. I missed the picture of the road split even though this time I knew it was coming up. I found out why this time, though. The road comes around a corner just before the split, which makes it hard to see. There is, however, a bus stop here, called "Umagaeshi". (There is a story behind the name, but I won't get into it. The brave can ask.)
At the split, the road crosses the Daitani (Ooya?) river. For a brief moment we had a stunning view of a snow-capped Mt. Nantai towering over the rushing waters of the river. I, sadly, was distracted switching cameras, and missed the shot. Sigh.
As we wound our way up the hillside, we spotted monkeys! One of them was so bold that he sauntered across the road, not even picking up his pace when the bus drove up. The bus didn't slow either, but the monkey still managed to get out of the way somehow. I've heard the monkeys are considred pests, so I half wonder if the bus driver didn't kind of aim for the monkey to begin with.
In the interests of time, I decided (regretfully) to skip Akechidaira and just proceed to the waterfall. It was getting into late afternoon, and we were starting to have to worry about the light failing. Arriving at the bus station we discovered piled snow banks all over the place. It was nice, compactable stuff, perfect for a snowball fight. My mother and I got into a brief one, until we realized what a mess we were making all over the sidewalk. Since there were a couple of people sweeping the snow off the sidewalk, we thought it best to stop and clean up the mess.
Unsurprisingly, we found snow all around the waterfall. It made for some wonderful winter shots.
You can take pictures of the Kegon Waterfall from the top, but the best shots are taken from lower down. There is an elevator that (for a price) takes you 100 meters down to a viewing platform that gives a wonderful angle on the falls. My mother and I decided to take the elevator down to the bottom of the falls, in an attempt to get some even better pictures. As we handed the ticket taker our tickets, I happened to glance at his name tag. The name caught my attention, since it felt like I should know it. The second kanji -"tou" - was easy. The first one, though... I thought about it for a minute, then remembered it was the "su" in "Nasu". Su...dou. His name was "Sudou", writtten with the same kanji. I did not laugh. I did not choke. I resisted the urge to ask him what his personal name was, and if he had a son. I was very proud of myself.
Leaving the waterfall, we headed toward the lake, back the way we came from - though by a slightly different route. As we left the parking lot, I spotted something familiar looking: the gas station at the start of the Iroha races. Yay, I think. I can get a shot of it! This thought was followed a moment later with, Oh no! I could have gotten the shot last time I was here - and with the right gas company running the station, too! *sob*. I know on the last trip we walked back by that same route. And I remember that when I was there a year and a half ago, the station had been a Nisseki station (like it is in the manga), rather than a Cosmo. If only I had looked around just a little more on that last trip. *sigh*
On the way to the lake I spotted a monkey running across the road. I tried to grab a shot of it, but only succeeded in throwing my lens cap on the ground. Fortunately, unlike at Taiyuuin below, the cap did not break. As I stood there juggling cameras, I watched the monkey chase a group of children around. The children screamed, and tried to shoo the monkey away, but the monkey continued chasing them. I began to understand why monkeys are considered a bit of a pest.
We took our shots of the lake, and of some conveniently posed monkeys, and hopped on a bus headed down the mountain. I grabbed several random shots of the road on the way down, and realized two important things. First, the bus goes down the mountain too fast for the digital camera to catch anything. (For example, how about this lovely shot of the first bridge? It's in there, I swear. Or maybe this shot of the second bridge? Yeah.) Second, dusk is a bad time to photograph anything with a film camera. The light meter kept picking up on the darkest thing around, so the shutter stayed open waaay too long. When I come back to document the mountain for real, I will go earlier in the day, with a car and a video camera. And more time.
Reaching the bottom of the pass, my mother and I decided to get off and have An Adventure. Going up, there had been some shots we wanted to photograph (such as the stunning one of Mt. Nantai over the river), so we bid the rest of the party farewell, and got off the bus. By this time it was heading into serious dusk, so the shots may need a lot of Photoshop. But the side trip was totally worth it for me. Firstly, because I got some nice shots of the up/down split for Iroha. And second, because of a strange and bizarrely entertaining incident.
We had been standing at the bus stop for maybe five minutes when we heard a siren headed our way. Within a couple of minutes, the cutest little fire engine appeared. It looked like a Tonka truck. No, really, it looked exactly like a Tonka truck. I wanted to stick it in my pocket and take it home with me, it was that small and cute.
Now, the bus stop is located at the foot of a valley. The road dead-ends into the split for Irohazaka. So any vehicle headed up the road must go up Iroha. Also, being at the foot on a valley sound echos like you would not believe.
So this little fire truck passes us and heads around the corner toward the split. For a long minute we can only hear the siren. Then the little fire truck appears through the trees. Our bus stop has an excellent view of the road up the mountain, and we watch as the engine occasionally peeks in and out of the trees. After a while it climbs high enough that we can't see it, even though we can still hear it.
About this time, we hear more sirens heading our way. Another, somewhat larger fire truck passes us, followed by a minivan full of attentive-looking firemen. They too start up the mountain. (I swear, that fire truck is the larger one. It seemed downright huge in comparison to the first one!)
Remember what I said about the echos? Well, now we had three vehicles with three different sirens going back and forth up an echoing valley. The effect ended up being bizarrely comedic.
Eventually another fire car headed up the mountain. The second fire truck did not end up going up the mountain, since it came back a minute later. After a few minutes an ambulance, lights flashing, came down the mountain. Then after that silence fell again, leaving us sitting in the cold, waiting for a bus.